‘Nunavut is ahead of us,’ on access to court interpreters

January 9, 2018

By Mitch Goldenberg, Postmedia Edmonton |

In one case, a woman testified to authorities in her native language about abuse she had experienced. Her imam acted as the interpreter.

In another, a five-year old boy interpreted for his mother as she testified against her husband, the boy’s father, accused of spousal abuse.

“Can you imagine that kind of trauma?” asked Dawn Nelson, a family lawyer with Legal Aid Alberta.

Nelson said many lawyers have their own horror stories that demonstrate how flawed the legal system’s approach to interpretation and translation services are.

“That triggered me,” said Nelson, who strung together an action committee seven years ago to promote change.

“Our goal is to advocate to make interpretation a permanent part of court services, made accessible to everybody throughout Alberta.”

Shannon Prithipaul, a criminal defence lawyer who joined Nelson’s cause, said those without fluent command of English or French are typically vulnerable to injustice due to their lack of knowledge about Canada’s legal process. The situation is made worse without access to an interpreter.

She pointed to one example where a client was arrested and promptly offered bail, but the crown did not provide him with an interpreter. He sat in custody for an extra three days because there was no interpreter present to translate the conditions of his bail, which contained minor details such as a curfew.

“Really? That is why they had to spend an extra three days?” Shannon asked. “That should not happen. These people are not apt to complain. Lawyers might not even realize there is a problem until they push.”

Professional interpretation service is essential for immigrants to understand their legal proceedings. The Supreme Court of Canada has ruled criminal courts must provide interpretation services, but the ruling is just a step towards the solution to a far-reaching problem.

“There is no obligation to provide that in civil court, child, domestic violence cases, or for witnesses and the victims. Only the accused,” Nelson said. “There is a huge gap. Criminal court is only a portion of what our system deals with. Nunavut is ahead of us.”

It is also common for the Crown to arrange interpretation services, which concerns Prithipaul.

“It’s not a good situation, and the Crown knows it,” Prithipaul said. “As an accused person, do you really want the Crown office arranging the interpreter? It’s the perception of fairness and bias that counts.”

But in cases where the Crown does not arrange the services, they must do so themselves and pay out of their own pocket.

“They don’t navigate the system well and are particularly vulnerable because they struggle to express what they need,” Prithipaul said. “In the Northwest Territories, in your first court appearance they as what is the language, and if they do not have an interpreter, they go find one.”

Without the service being provided, many are opting to fend for themselves.

Catherine Bell, a law professor at the University of Alberta who runs the school’s low income law clinic, said there is an uptick in self-represented litigants, especially in matrimonial and family law.

“We are seeing a significant increase in refugee and immigrant populations seeking services through legal aid clinics,” she said. “They need the system for temporary foreign worker issues, landlord and tenant issues and refugee hearing claims. It increases pressure on the service.”

With many immigrants and refugees falling into the low income category unable to afford legal representation, the chances of them paying for interpretation services are slim.

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